- Historic Sites
Gloom, Gloom, Gloom, And Scarce One Ray Of Light
Ruminations of E. L. Godkin and Charles Eliot Norton.
August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
Nowhere in the civilized world are the practical concerns of life more engrossing; nowhere are the conditions of life more prosaic; nowhere is the poetic spirit less evident, and the love of beauty less diffused. The concern for beauty, as the highest end of work, and as the noblest expression of life, hardly exists among us, and forms no part of our character as a nation.
Norton told a friend in 1873 that America had lost its original bright promise and was “not a pleasing child.” Only Harvard, Yale, the Nation, and the North American Review stood firm as “solid barriers against the invasion of modern barbarism & vulgarity.” The other landmarks and manners of an earlier and better day were disappearing before his very eyes. Even Cambridge was slipping away; Norton felt himself a stranger in his birthplace. The few houses that remained from his childhood were occupied by “new people.” Norton could find only “half a dozen men or women” who could converse on those general subjects once familiar to all people of education—“My fair neighbor asks, ‘What are Pericles?’ ” Thus Norton, condemned to live in an age of industrialization and specialization, sighed under his burden of nostalgia. One of his students—young Josephine Peabody, who heard him lecture at Radcliffe in 1895, wrote:
Professor Norton lectured in Italian 4 this afternoon. The dear old man looks so mildly happy and benignant while he regrets everything in the age and the country—so contented, while he gently tells us it were better for us had we never been born in this degenerate and unlovely age.
What had brought America to its present condition? Godkin found in the very heart of the American Experiment—in its commitment to political democracy and social equality—the cause of what he deemed to be its failure. These noble ideals simply did not work in practice. The triumph of popular rule had come to mean only that politicians catered to the lowest level of understanding. The ideal of equality, which in theory referred to an “equality of burdens,” had in actuality degenerated into a contempt for the excellent and superior, a “disregard for special fitness.” Could anything but disaster be expected from the masses whom this egalitarian democracy had thrown to the top? Godkin wrote in 1870:
Their rush into the forum and into the temples and palaces and libraries is not an agreeable sight to witness, and it would be foolish to expect that under their ruthless touch many gifts and graces will not be obscured, many arts will not be lost, many a great ideal, at whose shrine the best men and women of three generations have found courage and inspiration, will not vanish from the earth …
Along with equality and democracy both Godkin and Norton believed that the third agent of destruction was prosperity. Norton had long maintained that there was a causal connection between great wealth and the dissolution of national character. The decline of Greece had been set off by the “increase of private luxury [and] selfishness” and the rise of “unrestrained individuality.” Surely it was vanity to believe that America could be spared the disastrous effects of excessive material wealth. As early as 1853 Norton had warned that the long and uninterrupted history of prosperity enjoyed by the United States was beginning to take its toll in a declining national character. After the Civil War the blight grew worse and spread beyond the frontiers and across the ocean. Money-getting was proving the ruin of literature and was blunting the intelligence of the people; even in Europe materialism was leaving its imprint. A foolish optimism was in the air. From Florence in 1869 Norton wrote:
Italy in losing tyrants, in becoming constitutional, in taking to trade, is doing what she can to spoil her charm. The railroad whistle just behind the church of Santa Maria Novella, or just beyond the Campo Santo at Pisa, sounds precisely as it sounds on the Back Bay or at the Fitchburg Station,—and it and the common school are Americanizing the land to a surprising degree. Happy country! Fortunate people! Before long they may hope for their Greeleys, their Beechers, and their Fisks.
Norton did not deny that democracy could “work,” but as he said following the election of 1884, it appeared to work “ignobly, ignorantly, brutally.” Or it could work as it had begun to in Europe, bringing about “the destruction of old shrines, the disregard of beauty, the decline in personal distinction, the falling off in manners.” What was clear was that democracy did not work as Norton had hoped it would. In his view democracy was supposed to mean that everyone in society would be public-spirited. But it had turned out in practice to mean that everyone was involved in the selfish pursuit of private interests. Rather than heightening the individual’s awareness of his civic responsibilities, universal suffrage had furnished “a distinct source of moral corruption.” Rather than increasing the wisdom of all citizens, democracy had diminished the regard for intelligent counsel and produced a general “rejection of authority.” The sense of license and the smug complacency that had been created by democracy and prosperity had made “extravagant self-confidence” and willful conduct the hallmarks of the American people. Writing in 1896, Norton declared: “It seems to me not unlikely that for a considerable time to come there will be an increase of lawlessness and of public folly.”